PITTSBURGH — Depending on the person asked in the clubhouse, the Pittsburgh Pirates are rebuilding. Or they’re not. They’re retooling. Or they’re not. They’re pointing toward 2019 and beyond. Or they’re focused on the here and now.
The next six months will offer a chance at clarity.
The Pirates head into 2018 without Andrew McCutchen in the outfield on opening day for the first time in nearly a decade and without Gerrit Cole in the rotation for the first time since the start of 2013, traded in offseason moves that saved the franchise millions of dollars. Though both transactions included the Pirates picking up a handful of players they believe can make an immediate impact — including starting pitcher Joe Musgrove and third baseman Colin Moran — they left established Pirates like Josh Harrison wondering aloud whether the club cared about winning or making money.
Harrison suggested the team consider moving him if it didn’t plan to contend. Third baseman David Freese chastised a clubhouse culture that lacked accountability as part of the reason why the team has gone from three straight playoff berths from 2013-15 to back below .500 each of the last two seasons.
All the while general manager Neal Huntington has stressed Pittsburgh can remain relevant in the hyper-competitive NL Central while taking a decidedly different tack than rivals Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis, all of whom addressed roster concerns by dropping millions in free agency, a market the Pirates all but avoided.
“The players that we currently have on this roster, the players we have on the horizon, the players we’ve acquired in the two trades will play meaningful roles in the next Pittsburgh Pirates playoff team,” Huntington said.
Will that be this year? With two NL wild-card spots available, it’s not entirely out of the question. Though a lot of things — well, probably everything — will have to go right. The rotation now fronted by Ivan Nova will have to stay healthy. Center fielder Starling Marte needs to bounce back from his suspension-marred 2017 and first baseman Josh Bell needs to avoid any sort of regression after an impressive rookie season.
If anything, the Pirates will at least get a chance to play their way into — or out of — the conversation.
FRESH FACES: Musgrove sparkled out of the bullpen last season for Houston while helping the Astros to a World Series title. The Pirates, however, need him in the rotation. Musgrove is 8-12 with a 5.37 ERA in 25 career starts but struggled during spring training after dealing with right shoulder discomfort and it’s uncertain when he’ll be ready. Moran has the chance to create a true platoon (and maybe more) at third base. Kyle Crick, acquired in the trade with San Francisco, provides a lefty-option out of the bullpen.
COOL COREY: Pittsburgh’s major offseason move came in February when it acquired 2017 All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson from Tampa Bay. Dickerson gives Pittsburgh a proven bat and his range should give the outfield a slight overall defensive uptick at spacious PNC Park. Dickerson is also under team control for 2019, though another All-Star season could make Dickerson too expensive for Pittsburgh to keep. Such are small-market economics the Pirates believe they have to operate in to be competitive.
MOTIVATED MARTE: For the first time in his career, Starling Marte can lay claim to center without playing in McCutchen’s shadow. Marte was supposed to take over in center in 2017, a plan scuttled after he tested positive for steroids and had to serve an 80-game suspension. The talented if enigmatic 29-year-old is eager to return to the All-Star form he showed in 2016. ”(I’m here) to help my team like never before, to be the best teammate I can be and to be healthy to continue to be the best Marte that I am,” he said.
BEST CASE: Jameson Taillon makes 30-plus starts and replaces Cole as the staff ace. The lineup, which includes Corey Dickerson taking McCutchen’s spot in the outfield, shows a significant uptick in pop from the group that finished 29th in the majors in home runs last season. Felipe Rivero anchors a dominant bullpen and the Pirates stun everyone by earning a wild-card spot.
WORST CASE: The back end of the rotation — Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams and Musgrove — all struggle. Right fielder Gregory Polanco’s perpetually balky hamstring limits him to less than 130 games. Meadows is overwhelmed whenever he is called up and the Pirates are out of contention by July 1. Harrison, a two-time All-Star is traded and attendance plummets yet again.